Mia Feuer – The Climate & You

Intro (00:01): This is Audium Listens. I’m Dave Shaff from Audium Theater in San Francisco. I’ve been talking with artists around the bay about how life, and their craft, is changing due to the pandemic. There’s no question this moment has given everyone a chance to reflect on their lives. As we finish this insane year out, and look forward to the new year, I talk to sculptor and professor at California College of the Arts Mia Feuer. Mia has traveled the globe researching climate change, and created art for attention to the crisis. Now with another global catastrophe on our hands, she’s definitely felt a profound shift in her life. We’re going to talk about all the big topics in this one. Life, death, love, and the survival of our species. Let’s dive in. 

Dave (1:03): Great, great, great. You started out in Winnipeg, correct?

Mia (1:08): I grew up in Winnipeg, I attended a, uh, pretty conservative Jewish school, from the time I was little until 10th grade. And then I attended a public school where I was able to access art class for the first time, and it was like the sun came out.

Dave (1:29): Mm, so it was already like a kind of passion for you at that point?

Mia (1:33): I loved it. It was also the only thing anybody ever told me I was good at because I just had a lot of social anxiety, especially within that particular community. So then I, um, went to the University of Manitoba, and I studied sculpture there. But as soon as I took my first sculpture class, and I just realized that there was so much freedom in materials, and spatially, it just felt so limitless. Yeah, I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with sculpture immediately.

Dave (2:07): Mmm. So after Manitoba, then you, you went on into a, very, uh, competitive program, right, at the Virginia Commonwealth University?

Mia (2:16): So I took a couple years before I applied to Virginia Commonwealth University sculpture program because I really was like, I need to get into the best program. So I put up this show of sculptural work in Winnipeg — I rented a warehouse space. It was like, (laughs) all the money I had saved up. And the work I made was all sort of critical of Israeli policy and Israeli government, but it was very naive work. And the reason I’m bringing this up is because of what I’m seeing so much now around this call out culture, people being cancelled, called out on social media for making work or saying things that are somehow seen as problematic in some way.

Dave (3:02): Right, right, right.

Mia (3:07): When I made that work, it was seen as problematic by some folks in Winnipeg who were really invested in the plight of Palestinians. And I got called out to my face, because it was a time before social media. And I was called out in a way that was devastating.

Dave (3:25): Oh, wow…

Mia (3:25): I was like, okay, I need to do right. Before I go to grad school, before I make any more work, there’s a lot that I need to learn. 

Dave (3:37): Are you saying that, that that makes you feel like you support what people are doing in the way that they’re calling people out on social media, or is it different now?

Mia (3:46): it’s hard to generalize cancel culture as being, you know, it works every time. But I do think that for me, for my story, it did. I needed to be pushed. So I actually took off and went to the West Bank for, I mean, I don’t know, I was probably there for around eight months. And I and I was doing a lot of work in the West Bank — in Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron… It was a profound experience that really wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t make that initial very naive work about the conflicts in Israel and Palestine and get called out.

Dave (4:20): Wow, wow. it’s a very bold thing to go… Just say, you know what I’m going to, I’m going to go see what it’s all about for myself. And like, just going over there. That’s, that’s pretty impressive.

Mia (4:30): Yeah, I didn’t even tell my parents that I was there.

Dave (4:34): What?! Holy moly!

Mia (4:36): (Laughs) My mom, who is not someone who really pays much attention to news, she saw me on CNN.

Dave (4:43): You were on CNN? (Laughs)

Mia (4:45): And so every Friday they would all march down to the border to protest against the construction of the wall, which the Israeli government of the time was in the middle of cutting off this particular village’s access to their olive grow. And every Friday the soldiers would be waiting for them, and they would just shoot them and shoot tear gas. And I would go every Friday. I experienced the tear gas in my own body then I also saw one person get shot in the arm. It was really the first time I had seen violence like that, at the hands of a military that I had celebrated my whole life going to a Jewish school. It’s hard, because I am Jewish. You know, I mean, I’m still sort of reeling from that and and and trying to, trying to kind of understand my own identity as a Jew when I’m so at odds with, uh, Israeli policy or/and Zionist beliefs. So when I got back to Winnipeg after my time in the West Bank, I had about a week before I had to pack up my stuff and move to Richmond, Virginia to attend grad school and I was just really in shock.

Dave (6:04): That’s a lot to process for sure.

Mia (6:06): And I didn’t really get to and so when I arrived at grad school, it was all I wanted to talk about and it was all I made work about… Someone there said to me, you know Mia, you’re making all this work in response to your time in the Middle East but you’re not considering all of the petrochemicals that you’re using in your studio, in your practice. You’re not really considering all of the materials that you’re using. For you to make work about the Middle East and not consider the politics of oil is a problem. 

Dave (6:48): Right!

Mia (6:49): And that was like a giant light bulb went off. 

Dave (6:55): Sort of the the projects that you took on from that point — you went into back into Canada to Suncor energy and did a residency in the Arctic Circle and then you were down in Louisiana to Pointe Aux Chenes, and um all these things seemed like that was kind of a part of your trajectory. How was working with climate change and art related to that?

Mia (7:14): Yeah, yeah, I I felt like one thing led to the next since my time in Palestine and thinking about the intersections of making art and social justice, environmental justice. And so my time at Suncor energy researching, uh, the the extraction sites, the tar sands. But also going to the wood buffalo indigenous reservation hearing about how, how devastated their communities are because of all of the destruction caused in the name of fossil fuel extraction. And then that led me to a residency in the Arctic Circle and then that led me to do research on sea level rise, you know, being in the Arctic and actually witnessing glaciers just crumble. And —

Dave (8:06): Yeah.

Mia: (8:07) I collaborated with a climate scientist named Dr. Grant Dean, and he’s with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. I collaborated with him on a project where I actually was able to broadcast four consecutive months of sound coming from beneath the Arctic Ocean. And every time another glacier would calve, it would sound like thunder. And so yeah, climate change became like a theme that I wanted to, like, sort of deeply explore in my work. And that really came from this realization that the materials of my practice, you know, contribute to a warming climate. That was a hard, uh, realization, you know, like, can I use these materials in my sculptures?

Dave (9:06): Yeah,  every move we make has some sort of indirect effect on the environment, you know, even just like driving a car or, you know, so many of the materials that we use in our daily lives are in some form or another extracted from the earth at, at the expense of the climate or other people’s well being.

Mia (9:23): Yeah. Like, how can I just honor them? Since they’ve been violently extracted from the earth, and then processed and gone through pipelines and upgraders. How can I still honor that in the work?

Dave (9:38): So many people are thinking about climate more and more now, especially like the fires that just keep happening every year in California. Is there anything that very recently has kind of got you thinking in a different way?

Mia (9:50): I definitely am rethinking the careerist aspect of being an artist. I am not as comfortable anymore to be climbing a ladder. I’m interested in taking a while to be a little bit quieter and having more sort of deeper, more personal considerations about relationships. I’m, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother. There was a time where I just needed to “more, more, bigger, bigger, more, more, more!” And I, I don’t, I don’t want that anymore. You know, this week, my best friend died. My best friend died this week. She died from cancer, but COVID made travel impossible in the last six months. But before that, I still didn’t really go as much as I should have because I had a career that I needed to always be on top of and it’s one of my biggest regrets, now that I sit here. I put that career ahead of that relationship. And now she’s gone. And I, and I have time now to like, sit with it and reflect on it as fucking terrible as it is that I lost my friend. But I, I have gotten a lot closer with other moms, even other faculty! The intimacy that has blossomed, it’s really, it’s really amazing. And that is so much more meaningful than racing to build a big styrofoam sculpture.

Dave (11:49): What about also, you were talking about as a mother, uh, your experience in COVID has been kind of profound, right? Like, bringing this other being along on, um, this kind of really intense period of time.

Mia (12:00): I never meant to be a mother. After my research in the tar sands, I said to myself, no, there’s no way I’m bringing a child into this world. There is no future here. And yet, you know, a couple years later, I got pregnant and it wasn’t by accident completely. I mean, I understand how babies are made. Um, when I really think about it I’m very, very sad for whatever the future holds for my baby when, when they grow up.

Dave (12:32): It’s definitely a, a problem of so many people right now. It’s like, bringing kids into this world where we don’t know what the future is gonna look like because of climate change. But then, on the other hand, it can be a really beautiful sort of thing.

Mia (12:47): I love him so much. I didn’t even know that I even have that capacity within me to feel that way about anything. Because I had been living a very self centered life up until

he came on the scene. Everything I did was for my career, and then he came on the scene and like he’s the most important thing in my whole world. And, and that’s really hard, you know, to go through the apocalypse if you don’t have this child that you’re in love with. And it’s, it’s, its, much more heartbreaking to think about the future.

Dave (13:20): Yeah, yeah. It’s very deep. It’s super deep. 

Mia (13:26): I, It’s something that haunts me every day. Like, do I, do I explain to him? Do I talk to him about protests with black lives matter? Do I sit down and watch Democracy Now with him every morning and explain to him what’s going on, and what’s — you know, I mean, he’s at an age where he’s idolizing cops! And he’s idolizing the bulldozers and construction equipment and all these forces that are so destructive on the planet. 

Dave (13:56): And it’s just like, it’s a totally different level for him. But it’s, it’s still like this feeling of, uh (laughs) you know, you got to give them the reality. Speaking of mothers, you have this solar mothers exhibition that you’re unveiling.

Mia (14:15): I was compelled to make this scene of these figurative sculptures that honored the Egyptian goddess Taweret and her sisters known as the solar mothers who protect birthing mothers, as well as newborn babies. With this work, I really was compelled to return back to the human body, the female body. I cast the bodies of 10 different women who I really respect, and these creatures were just lounging in all of their liberated glory. So now I’m, you know, in the, I have a show opening here in Oakland at Dream Farm Commons. 

Dave (14:56): The creatures themselves, I really like the kind of vibe, very kind of fantastical. The very last question here. Thinking ahead, like is there anything that’s kind of happening in the world right now that we could use as an opportunity? I wonder if we can think about how we can make our community better, you know, our city and how we kind of redefine what’s important to us, people around us.

Mia (15:31): Right, like, uh, the fact that we’re talking publicly about defunding the police. That’s beautiful! That’s so incredible, the fact that, all these big institutions, museums, uh, academic institutions, are all reckoning publicly with white supremacy, finally? It’s wonderful. For us as like a culture to bend towards justice and equity once and for all! You know, like, let’s keep fighting! There’s a momentum, there’s an energy, and I, and think too like that’s a question that I, I keep sort of returning to like… You know in a more just world, what are the comforts that I’m going to give up?

Dave (16:26): Lots to ponder there as we close out this final episode of 2020. Thanks to Mia for her thoughts and incredible openness. If you want to check out some photos or more info about her work see the link in the show notes. Also, thanks to Nate Todesco, our fantastic intern for help with transcript, editing, and some guitar playing in the background of today’s episode. You can find a link to more about what Nate’s up to in the show notes as well. Thanks so much for listening, we really do appreciate your support. Don’t forget to like and subscribe, and tell a friend or two! We’ll be back in 2021, really for as long as COVID is effecting Bay Area arts. Here’s to a better new year for all of us. Until then, be well and keep on pondering…